The Power Child: 20 Great Chris Cornell Moments

Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

The Power Child: 20 Great Chris Cornell Moments

Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

When an iconic figure dies — and too many have died lately — a simple eulogy, even an empathetic and observant and beautifully written one, is never enough. Sometimes, you need to dig deeper, to look at the weird digressions and fun moments from an iconic career. In the past few years, we’ve looked at the lives of some of the great people we’ve lost (Adam Yauch, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Chuck Berry) and chosen 20 fun moments, moments that reveal interesting things about the people and about the moments in which they lived.

Today, we’re doing the same for Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, one of the great volcanic voices and presences of his generation, who was taken from us last night at the way-too-young age of 52. These aren’t the best moments of Cornell’s career; it’s hard to imagine how you’d even quantify that. Instead, these are 20 moments that will stay with us, 20 things to celebrate about a great life. Cornell was a fascinating figure: a natural powerhouse singer and classic-rock frontman who came from an age, and a scene, that disdained powerhouse singers and classic-rock frontmen. He could’ve been a pariah, too conventionally talented and beautiful for an era when insurgent outsiders were the heroes. Instead, he commanded the respect of his sludge-rock contemporaries and his arena-rock forebears, his gift always outshining his context. Let’s take a longer look.


It still raises goosebumps. Eddie Vedder is doing his thing, power-groaning, sounding intent and serious. And then the chorus hits, and then the howl. Vedder sings that he’s going hungry, and Chris Cornell responds that he’s going hungraaaay-AAAAY. His voice is doing all the same things that Vedder’s voice is doing, but it’s doing them more. In the video, Cornell is on a beach on a gray and foggy day, his hair blowing in every direction. He looks like some kind of ancient rock deity. It’s perfect.

When I was 12 and “Hunger Strike” went into heavy alt-rock radio rotation — it’s never quite left — you couldn’t tell me that there was any better singer on the face of earth. For those three words, Chris Cornell was Robert Plant and Otis Redding at the same damn time. The fact that he and Vedder recorded this perfect piece of nonsense back when Vedder wasn’t famous yet and when Cornell was only kind of famous — and that it came out right when the two of them were becoming galactic stars — is some beautiful accident of fate.


Audioslave should’ve been a fundamentally corny enterprise, arriving, as it did, at the beginning of that Velvet Revolver era, when fading stars were pooling resources and fanbases, doing whatever they could to avoid being left behind. And, at least on some level, it was a fundamentally corny enterprise. When all those Rage Against The Machine guys went from hammering home blunt-force Marxist invective to backing up Cornell’s mystic wails, it made it look like they didn’t care that much about the Marxist invective. And also they chose the name Audioslave, which is one of the more hilariously generic monikers in rock history. But when Audioslave worked, they worked.

Consider “Cochise,” the band’s introduction to the world. The band launches into one of those colossal monster-stomp grooves, and when you were waiting for Cornell’s mouth to open, maybe it started to dawn on you that nobody had ever sung over one of those, that Zack De La Rocha was a barker and not a singer. Maybe you started to think that this could go very, very wrong. And then Cornell opened his mouth and swallowed the universe. His whole performance on “Cochise” is one for the ages. When the song hits its bridge and then snaps back into form — that old “Whole Lotta Love” trick — Cornell shouts the phrase “you don’t feel a thing.” And he turns the word “thing” into an elemental death-of-words eruption, stretching it out for what feels like forever.

In director Mark Romanek’s video, the members of Audioslave drive out to the middle of the desert, ride an abandoned freight elevator to the top of some kind of rickety metal tower, and play the song while pyro illuminates the sky behind him. At the moment of that scream, Cornell falls to his knees, his whole face bathed in red light, fireworks blooming behind him. It’s so beautiful. That still raises goosebumps, too.


Singles wasn’t built to be a generational-touchstone movie. It’s a fun, chatty Cameron Crowe young-folks-struggling-in-love movie, and that’s all it really should be. But it took place against the backdrop of the world falling in love with Seattle and its music, so it really couldn’t be anything but. Soundgarden actually perform in the movie, getting a generous few seconds of screentime. But Chris Cornell’s greatest onscreen moment is when he ambles up next to Matt Dillon, looking on blankly as Dillon accidentally destroys Bridget Fonda’s car. Something about his total non-reaction makes a hacky slapstick scene way funnier than it should be. And the idea that this rock god could just be quietly living in your apartment complex sort of sums up the romance of the whole Seattle explosion.


When the James Bond series attempted to reinvent itself as something darker and grittier with the release of 2006’s Casino Royale — still, to my mind, the best Bond movie ever made — they brought in Chris Cornell. Cornell was the first American man ever to sing a Bond theme, and it’s weird to consider the very idea the very idea of a grimy Seattle guy reintroducing a series built around suave, urbane gloss. Cornell’s “You Know My Name” isn’t one of the great Bond themes or anything, but he sang the hell out of it.


On paper, it was awkward and forced and ridiculous: an aging country music icon, looking for renewed relevance, teaming up with a rap producer — that’s how the world still saw Rick Rubin in 1996 — and covering a grunge song. But Cash turned “Rusty Cage” into thousand-yard-stare tough-guy music, and Cornell, recognizing a good thing, started doing Cash’s version live instead of his own. I like imagining Cornell hearing Cash’s version for the first time. I also like imagining Cash hearing Cornell’s version for the first time.


Soundgarden wrote “Big Dumb Sex,” a song from their major-label debut Louder Than Love, as a parody of the cheesed-out glam metal that was running rock at the time. The hook was this: “I know what to do! I’m gonna fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck you!” Not everyone caught the irony. Because of “Big Dumb Sex,” Soundgarden had some trouble getting the album into stores. And the glam-metal bands who Soundgarden were mocking sure seemed to like the song. Before Nirvana came along and reshaped the landscape, Soundgarden were well on their way to blowing up in a hair-metal universe. They toured with Guns N’ Roses, and with Skid Row. And when GN’R released their all-covers album The Spaghetti Incident? in 1993, they included a bit of “Big Dumb Sex” at the end of their version of T. Rex’s “Buick Makane.”

GN’R’s embrace of the band drives something home: Soundgarden may have found a context in the alt-rock explosion, but they would’ve been fine without it. Alone among the grunge bands, they played a style of rock so blown-out and charismatic that the huge arena-metal bands of the ’80s could look at them and see kindred spirits. When Lollapalooza asked Metallica to headline the touring festival in 1996, they said they’d only do it if Soundgarden would come along as well. They were a connective tissue, and they helped geoform the new world that Nirvana would introduce.


Cornell’s third solo album was 2009’s Scream, a full-length collaboration with the spaced-out pop visionary Timbaland. Timbaland talked about the album as one of his greatest accomplishments and said that it would make Cornell the first rock star at the club. This did not happen. Scream was bad. Like, really bad. It was a muddled and misbegotten mess. Cornell’s fire-god wail and Timbo’s skittery drums and slow synth-swells seemed to come from two different planets that had declared war on one another. Listening to it was like standing in between two nightclubs, both of which were playing loud and shitty music. It didn’t work.

Still, I’m glad Scream happened. It’s a noble failure — two restless spirits, guys unwilling to coast on past glories, coming together and trying to make something new and unprecedented. And I’ll take a catastrophic flame-out failure over a blandly capable shrug of a record any day of the week.


One more cool thing about Scream: The album’s existence led to one of the more memorable head-to-head showdowns between ’90s rock icons that this century has yet produced. Trent Reznor — a man who had spent an entire career doing a more artful job fusing screamy rock music with synthetic pop — heard Scream and found his sensibilities offended. Using a brand-new microblogging platform known as Twitter, Reznor said this: “You know that feeling you get when somebody embarrasses themselves so badly YOU feel uncomfortable? Heard Chris Cornell’s record? Jesus.”

Then, on April Fools Day, Reznor announced his own Timbaland-produced album, an entirely fictional venture called Strobe Light. The cover was Reznor wearing shutter shades. One fake song was called “Coffin On The Dancefloor.” Another fake song was called “This Rhythm Is Infected.” Another fake song was called “Pussygrinder” (Feat. Sheryl Crow). The whole thing was fucking hilarious, and I sort of wish the album really existed.

In any case, the feud had a happy ending. In 2014, Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden joined forces for what was, by all accounts, a triumphant co-headlining tour. I wish I’d seen it.


This one didn’t have a happy ending, except in the sense that Cornell decisively won. Billy Corgan was irate because Cornell had said that his 2007 Smashing Pumpkins reunion wasn’t “legitimate,” presumably because it didn’t include any non-Corgan members. When Soundgarden got back together, Corgan fired back a years-later return shot: “They’re just out there to have one more round at the till; same with Pavement and these other bands.”

Cornell’s response to Corgan was merciless: “When Billy Corgan was completely broke, I got him a movie deal with director Cameron Crowe where he made $40,000. He was very happy about that, and he was specifically happy about the $40,000. So next time you see him, tell him he owes me my $40,000 back.”


If you’re looking for some evidence of Soundgarden’s all-encompassing hugeness in the mid-’90s, consider this: There is an entire Keanu Reeves/Cameron Diaz romantic comedy that takes its title from a stray line on “Outshined.” A major movie studio signed off on this. If there had been a sequel, maybe it would’ve been called Looking California.


Cornell had a voice that could overpower the sun, but when he wanted to, he could be a great stealth collaborator. He produced and sang backing vocals on the Screaming Trees’ 1991 album Uncle Anesthesia. On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, he co-wrote a single for American Idol winner David Cook in 2008. And on Alice In Chains’ 1992 EP Sap, he and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm sang back up on the acoustic hymn “Right Turn.” AIC credited that one song to “Alice Mudgarden,” which is fun. And the three of them — Cornell, Arm, and Layne Staley — sound amazing together.


The entire video for “Show Me How To Live,” a song from Audioslave’s 2002 self-titled debut, is an extended homage to the great 1971 car-chase movie Vanishing Point. In the video, Cornell and those ex-Rage guys drive a vintage muscle car through the desert, running cop cars off the road and finally exploding into a glorious fireball. It’s awesome. I wish they still made videos like that.


The first time Soundgarden appeared on record, it was as a part of Deep Six, a 1986 C/Z Records compilation that also featured songs from fellow Seattle bands Green River, Melvins, Skin Yard, Malfunkshun, and the U-Men. In that collection of bands, you can hear the beginning of a sound that would change the world. Of those bands, only Soundgarden ever became famous. (Melvins are still going, but you can’t really say that they ever got famous-famous.) But members of those other bands would go on to form Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, and Screaming Trees. And even more importantly, you can hear the ambition at work — these swampy, gnarled, lo-fi songs from these bands that are clearly striving to become something more.


Commercial rock, of the sort that Cornell once made, is practically extinct these days. But there’s still plenty of reverence for what guys like Cornell represented in Nashville country, which has become the most popular source for big guitars and growly vocals and grand arena gestures in recent years. And three years ago, Cornell played along, singing backup and playing guitar during a CMT performance from the country superstar Jason Aldean. (I had a beer with Aldean once. He’s a good dude.) Aldean nodded to Cornell at the end, but he played in the shadows, and you could miss his presence if you didn’t know he was in there. Still, it’s fun to think about Cornell’s influence finding its way into unlikely places.


Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn founded SST Records. It’s the label that released some of the best music from bands like the Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen, and countless other underground warriors. It’s also the label that released Soundgarden’s full-length debut Ultramega OK in 1988. And in 1990, Ultramega OK was nominated for a Best Metal Performance Grammy. I can’t figure out how to confirm this, but I can’t imagine any other SST record ever got a Grammy nomination. It’s a great illustration of one of the fundamental contradictions at the heart of Soundgarden: They were from the underground, but they were not of the underground.


In 2014, shortly after his hometown Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl, Chris Cornell narrated a video designed to fire up Seahawks fans. It was set to “My Wave,” and it doesn’t appear to be officially related to the team or the NFL in any way. Cornell posted it on his YouTube page. He might’ve made it himself? I love the idea that Chris Cornell was so devoted to his hometown team — and to the intensity of its fans, the real subject of the video — that he had to put together a video to show it.


On “Sub Pop Rock City,” a song from Soundgarden’s 1988 EP Fopp (and from the Sub Pop 100 compilation), Soundgarden included a phone call from Sub Pop heads Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, asking their label bosses if they should get rid of their sideburns and if they could have their drummer back. It’s really weird! Also, that same EP included “Fopp (Fucked Up Heavy Dub Mix),” which sampled Godzilla’s roar. And the EP ended with a burp. Soundgarden could be fun!


1992’s Singles soundtrack included the Soundgarden song “Birth Ritual,” and it also included Cornell’s first-ever solo song “Seasons.” And fuck, man, “Seasons.” That Singles soundtrack is full of iconic songs, but “Seasons” still stands out. It’s a piece of mystic, swirling folk, slightly reminiscent of Led Zeppelin III, and it just crushes. Cornell actually recorded a bunch of solo songs for Singles, many of them as a sort of extended joke based on Matt Dillon’s character Poncier. By some strange coincidence, those unreleased tracks are coming out tomorrow as part of a Singles soundtrack reissue. But, seriously, listen to “Seasons.”


Cornell was friends with Jeff Buckley, who drowned in 1997. And Buckley was a key influence on Euphoria Morning, the first solo album that Cornell released. “Wave Goodbye,” one of that album’s songs, was a straight-up tribute to Buckley — a song about missing someone, realizing you’re never going to see that someone again, performed in a style that specifically mirrors what that someone was doing musically. “Wave Goodbye” has Buckley’s falsetto-flights and his strange, off-kilter jazz-rock arrangements, and yet it’s still very much a Chris Cornell song. It’s a strange and moving beast.


It’s crazy, in retrospect, to think about how much time Chris Cornell spent eulogizing other artists, something that everyone else will now have to do for him. All of the Temple Of The Dog album was intended as a tribute to Andrew Wood, the Mother Love Bone frontman who had once been Cornell’s roommate. As mentioned above, Cornell also did “Wave Goodbye” for Jeff Buckley. I’m sure there were others, too. And just a few months ago, in a SiriusXM session, he did an absolutely devastating cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a song that Prince famously wrote. Prince had just died a few months earlier, and now the guy singing the song for him has died, too. Nothing can take away these blues.


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